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John James Audubon, America’s most famous naturalist, was born in Les Cayes, Santo Domingo (now Haiti), on April 26, 1785. His father was a French sea captain, Jean Audubon, and his mother, Jeanne Rabine, was a servant. After his mother died, his father brought him to his home in Coueron, France, a small town near Nantes, where he was raised by his father and step-mother. He was given a formal education; however, his passion was exploring and drawing birds and their nests. In 1803 he was sent to the United States to avoid Napoleon’s draft and to run a farm in Mill Grove near Philadelphia that his father had purchased in 1789.
As a naturalist, his interests were traveling, collecting, and drawing interesting specimens, not in running the farm. He, therefore, lost the farm. While in Mill Grove, he met and befriended Lucy Bakewell, who he married in 1808. Audubon knew great financial hardship as his interests were not marketable. The family eventually settled in New Orleans after living in Kentucky, and Audubon found he could make some money drawing portraits and as a taxidermist. He met Alexander Wilson in 1810 and a decade later Audubon developed the idea of publishing his drawings as engravings.
Lacking support in America for his grand project, he left for England in 1826 arriving in Liverpool where he found support for his idea to publish 500 engravings of the Birds of America in life size. The first engraver selected for the project was William H. Lizars, a prominent natural history engraver in Edinburgh. Audubon’s project was on a grand scale, not only did he want the images to be life size, but he wanted them to be the grandest ornithological work ever published. Lizars was not up to the production demands and produced only a small number of engravings. The project was shifted to London and to one of the most talented aquatint engravers, Robert Havell, Jr. It is interesting to note the distinction between the two engravers, William H. Lizars' work was as a pure engraver and Robert Havell, Jr. was not just an engraver but a talented master of aquatint, an etching process to add tone and shading to a copper plate. Robert Havell’s talent, his ability to produce a high quality print, quickly suited Audubon and his backers. Between the years 1827 and 1838, 435 aquatint engravings were produced. By the end of the project Audubon had about 175 subscribers, and it is estimated that the total number published was around 200. That means that Robert Havell pulled 87,000 impressions of these mammoth plates in eleven years.
The project made Audubon famous. Even today, he is recognized worldwide as one of the world’s finest ornithological artists. The original watercolors of The Birds of America are owned by The New-York Historical Society, which is located at 170 Central Park West, New York City. A visit to the Historical Society when these exquisite watercolors are on display is a must.
As with any great project, there were many hands that helped. His assistant and young artist, Joseph Mason and his two sons, John Woodhouse and Victor Gifford, were important to the artist in the production of this and other projects, namely, the quadrupeds that were produced before Audubon's death in New York City, on January 27, 1851.
Books illustrated by John James Audubon:
The Birds of America – Double-elephant folio edition. Published in London 1827-1838, issued in 87 parts 5 plates each, the 435-handcolored aquatint engravings illustrated 1,065 birds of 489 species. The average paper size 25 x 38 inches when bound into four immense volumes weighing close to 70 pounds each volume. Printed on J. Whatman watermarked paper, each sheet bearing a date when the paper was made.
The Birds of America – Octavo edition. Published in New York, 1840-1844 (First edition, there were many subsequent editions). Issued in 100 parts of 5 plates each, the 500-handcolored lithographic plates illustrated all the birds and species of the double-elephant folio edition; however, each species had their own sheet. Average paper size is 7 x 10 1/2 inches. In later editions more of the prints are printed in color rather than handcolored.
The Birds of America – Double-elephant folio edition Bien edition. Published after J. J. Audubon’s death by his youngest son, John Woodhouse Audubon, around 1860. Originally, the set was to be a full reissue in the double-elephant format of the 500 prints. Poor economic conditions brought on by the Civil War stopped the project at 105 prints. The lithographs are printed in color and often called chromolithographs.
Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America – Imperial folio edition. Published 1845-1848, after drawings by John James and John Woodhouse Audubon. The 150-handcolored lithographs were produced by J. T. Bowen in Philadelphia. Average paper size 21 x 27 inches. There are different editions of this great work, but little research has been done. With the exception of a few broken stones, it is difficult, if not impossible, to tell the different editions apart when looking at individual prints.
Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America – Octavo edition. Published 1849-1854 after drawings by John James and John Woodhouse Audubon. The 155-handcolored lithographs were produced by J. T. Bowen in Philadelphia. Average paper size is 7 x 10 1/2 inches. As with the birds in later editions, more of the prints were printed in color rather than handcolored.